Matthew Paris: a voice from medieval St Albans


BritLibRoyal14CVIIFol006rMattParisSelfPortMatthew Paris (c.1200-1259). Photograph by the British Library., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A talented young man

On a cold winter’s day in January 1217, a young man entered the Abbey of St Alban, and exchanged his secular garb for the black hooded cloak of a novice Benedictine monk.

Most monks remained anonymous. Indeed, we know relatively little about the background of Matthew Paris and his personal life. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he speaks to us from 13th century England through his extensive, frank and occasionally indiscreet writings on everything from the avarice of the Pope to which of the leading monks enjoyed exclusive access to the shrubbery within the cloisters.

Matthew Paris [1] was probably in his late teens or early twenties[2] when he joined the monastery.  Many monasteries preferred well born postulants, who could make a significant financial contribution on entry. As a highly-reputed convent (as monasteries were then known), St Albans Abbey could afford to be choosy. [3] So Matthew may well have come from a relatively affluent background.

By contemporary standards, Matthew had an excellent education; it is possible that he studied in the Abbey’s almonry school. In any event, he had a command of Latin (the language of the Church and of academia), Anglo- Norman French (spoken by the elites) and the vernacular Middle English (the language of the common people).

The talents he honed as a scholar would have helped him to secure admittance to the monastery. During his novitiate Matthew would have broadened and deepened his knowledge of the theological underpinnings of medieval Christianity. And, as he showed in the maps and chronicles he went on to produce, he became a talented cartographer and illustrator.

His later experiences hint at more complex skills. In due course, Matthew was to find himself dining with King Henry III at his palace in Westminster, and enduring a hazardous journey across the North Sea, at the behest of the pope and the Norwegian king. 

The Abbey that Matthew joined: England’s premier monastery

As the guardian of the shrine of St Alban, England’s first Christian or proto-martyr, the Abbey was recognised as the country’s premier monastery. But the monastery that Matthew joined was much more than a destination for pilgrims and a place of quiet religious contemplation.

It also provided direct and indirect employment for hundreds of lay people. It was the headquarters of a large and wealthy estate of ecclesiastical and secular properties, mainly in Hertfordshire, but including estates as far afield as Northumberland (Tynemouth Priory), Norfolk (Binham Priory) and Leicestershire (Belvoir Priory). And it was the administrative and judicial centre for the Liberty of St Albans, which sprawled across much of the county.

Binham Priory, Norfolk, a former cell of St Albans Abbey (Peter Bourton)

As a result, the Abbey teemed with life. It was a guesthouse for wealthy and well-connected travellers, a hostel for less well-heeled pilgrims, a school for the lucky sons of generally well-off parents, an infirmary or hospital for those who hoped to live, a final refuge for those preparing their souls, a library for the few who could gain access, a meeting point for all manner of people, and a perpetual building site [4].

Administering the Abbey and its estates required a team of leading monks or obedentiaries – among them, the cellarer to procure and maintain supplies of food and drink, the infirmarer to care for the sick, and the guest-master to look after facilities for the great and the humble who visited the Abbey.  Heading this team was Abbot William of Trumpington, who enjoyed high status as a mitred monk. He had to deal with leading ecclesiasts, nobles, Papal legates, officials and relatives of the King, and from time to time, the King himself. His was not an easy job.

Matthew begins his novitiate

The instability that had afflicted England during Matthew’s youth carried on even as he entered the Abbey in January 1217.  A few months later, French troops invited to England by the rebellious barons plundered the Abbey’s priory in Redbourn, and Abbot William was pressured (unsuccessfully) by the French Dauphin to swear allegiance to him [5]. The home team (supporters of King John) didn’t behave much better – the Abbot had to bribe English soldiers to leave the Abbey in peace [6]. But in May 1217, the French were defeated, and an uneasy peace settled on the kingdom.

Matthew began his novitiate. Over a period of a year or so, he would have studied theology, the Benedictine rule, and the languages needed to read the religious texts held in the Abbey’s scriptorium.  Like all monks, he participated in the Liturgy of the Hours – religious services or offices performed throughout the day and night. Matthew would also have been called upon to perform tasks such as manual labour, underlining the humility expected from all monks. When he took his vows to become a monk, he would have had his head shaved – the tonsure.

Although the Benedictine rule required that monks refrain from eating meat as part of their regular diet, Matthew’s diet was probably more varied and plentiful than that of most lay people. It was common for the sick and novices to be allowed meat from time to time. On feast days, the rules restricting monks to bread, vegetables and fish did not apply, so meat could be eaten. Indeed, analysis of archaeological finds from the post-Conquest era at St Albans Abbey found evidence of significant consumption of pork and hare, mirroring the diet of contemporary French wealthy households [7].

The decisive influence of Roger of Wendover

At some stage, Matthew must have attracted the attention of Roger of Wendover, a senior monk in the Abbey. Roger had experienced a chequered career since becoming a monk. Early promise had led to his appointment as the prior of one of the Abbey’s cells – Belvoir Priory in Leicestershire – often a stepping stone to higher office. Writing later, Matthew tells us that Roger’s performance evidently disappointed his superiors [8]. At about the same time that Matthew entered the Abbey, Roger was recalled to the mother house.

Happily, Roger found his niche as head of the Abbey’s scriptorium. The  scriptorium was widely reputed for its growing collection of books and documents, to which Roger added his own work. He is best known for the Flores Historiarum, a chronicle of events since the Creation. Like Matthew’s subsequent Chronica Majora, which subsumed Roger’s work, Flores Historiarum is more interesting for its observations on near contemporary events. This included the start of work on the Magna Carta at a conference in St Albans Abbey in 1213, attended by barons and bishops.

Roger was served by a team of scribes who copied books borrowed from other libraries. Not all monks possessed adequate literacy, but Roger evidently recognised that Matthew was well-suited to becoming a scribe himself.

Eadwine the scribe at work, by an unknown artist. With his quill in his right hand, Eadwine is using the small knife in his left hand to hold the page down. The knife could also be used to scrape away errors. (Public domain)

Until printing technology reached Europe, the production of books was laborious and expensive. Most books were hand-written on parchment, which might require the entire skin of a calf (the basis for vellum), sheep or goat to produce just four pages for a codex, or bound book. 

Once drafted into the scriptorium, Matthew would have started work in a humble capacity, perhaps helping to make ink from oak galls, refilling the inkhorns of scribes, scraping the surface of used pages so that they could be reused (as a palimpsest) and preparing pens from the quill feathers of geese or swans [9]. Given the expense of parchment, it is likely that Matthew would have been given scraps or spoiled pages on which to practice writing.

As soon as he had demonstrated the necessary competence, he would have been put to work copying out works lent by other libraries, producing fair copies of notes, or taking dictation. In due course, he probably joined those scribes tasked with producing finalised versions of each year’s chronicle – the annals. Over time, Matthew must have impressed his superiors. He might have been permitted to sit in on meetings between the Abbot and the distinguished visitors who sometimes provided news for Roger’s chronicle, so that he could take notes.

As Roger became more infirm, it seems probable that Matthew took over more of his responsibilities. By the time Roger died on 6 May 1236, Matthew was doubtless seen by the newly-elected Abbot (John of Hertford) as Roger’s natural successor. Matthew owed Roger a large debt of gratitude, both for the experience he had gained and for creating the chronicle that Matthew now inherited. But he soon made the chronicle his own, and began a new period of exceptional creativity.

The Chronica Majora

Freed from Roger’s editorial constraints, Matthew set out to ‘improve’ and update his predecessor’s chronicle of life since Adam and Eve, Flores Historiarum. This became the Chronica Majora, updated annually with accounts of a wide variety of topics that Matthew deemed important. Abridgements of the Chronica Majora became the basis for the Historia Anglorum (the History of England) and Matthew’s own version of Flores Historiarum.

From a modern perspective, Matthew’s chronicles are more interesting than other contemporary accounts because they afford glimpses of the grubby politics of 13th century Europe, and England in particular. For example, in one year alone, the Chronica Majora‘s record of 1249 [10], Matthew recorded:

  • several of the King’s schemes for raising money;
  • the bitter disputes between the Holy Roman Emperor (Frederick II) and Pope Innocent IV, as well as the exploits of the Emperor’s sons;
  • the aborted plans for a tournament in Northampton, a ‘successful’ tournament in Brackley in which the English were defeated by a team of foreigners, and the death in a tournament of a leading Northern baron, Roger FitzJohn;
  • town and gown riots in Cambridge;
  • the supply of provisions by the Venetians to the French king and his army as he overwintered in Cyprus in preparation for a Crusade campaign;
  • the assembly and dispersal of aspiring crusaders in London;
  • the enthronement of Boniface as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and quarrels within abbeys at Westminster and Peterborough;
  • the death of Alexander, the King of Scots, as well as many more nobles and prelates; and
  • the abundance of the annual corn crop, but the rather less productive fruit harvest

No other chronicler of his age, and few since, wrote such detailed accounts of the period in which he lived. They have proved invaluable to later historians.

Authoritative sources

Helped by the fact that many people passed through St Albans and stayed at the Abbey, Matthew enjoyed privileged access to highly-placed sources, often with first hand experience of the events he chronicled. Judging from the reports he made, he made far greater efforts to cultivate potential sources than Roger, with significant success. Those who sang for their supper included bishops, abbots, royal councillors and administrators, and even more importantly, King Henry III himself, as well as his wife Eleanor and his brother Richard, earl of Cornwall. Importantly, it appears that Matthew generally produced his annals within a year or so of the events they described [11] and it seems likely that they were based on near contemporaneous notes.

Matthew took pride in the the willingness of high-ranking people to speak to him, and wanted others to know that his chronicles were seen as important. After recounting the ceremonies he attended at Westminster to mark the receipt in London of a vial of Christ’s blood, he described the walk-on part he played:

While the king was seated on his royal throne … he saw the person who wrote this [Matthew], called him to him, and told him to sit on the steps between the throne and the floor of the church. “You have seen all these things,” said the king, “and you have firmly impressed what you have seen on your mind?” To which he replied, “Indeed yes, my lord, for they are worthy of retention; this day’s proceedings have been truly magnificent” … [The king said] “I command you to write a clear and detailed account of all these proceedings to be entered indelibly in a book, so that their memory cannot on any account be lost to posterity down the ages”. And he invited the person to whom he said this to dinner with his three companions [12].

Extensive use of illustrations

Illustrations were not unknown in other medieval chronicles, but few contemporaries are known to have made such wide use of thoughtful illustrations to depict the events of the day.  For example, alongside text describing the effects on England of the Papal Interdict of 1208 – 1214, he drew bells with their ropes looped up so that they could not be be tolled, and at the end, the bell ropes unlooped so they could be rung once more.

Although many of the illustrations depict individuals, they are all dressed and equipped in the contemporary manner, so that a drawing of workmen building the Abbey at the behest of King Offa gives a good idea of 13th century construction techniques.[13]

One of Matthew’s most famous illustrations was his drawings from life of an elephant – a fantastical creature so far as most people in England were concerned. The elephant was given to King Henry III in 1255 by King Louis IX of France who had in turn received it as a gift from the emir of Egypt. [14] The elephant was housed in the Tower of London from its arrival in December 1255 to its demise in 1257, and during that period, Matthew visited the Tower and made sketches. The resulting drawings were far better than many contemporary depictions – notably because they showed that elephants had knees.

Matthew’s other works

Matthew also produced a number of other significant works, including several saints’ lives (otherwise known as hagiographies), and the Gesta Abbatum, a history of the monastery of St Albans. From 1247, Matthew also published in the Liber Additoramentorum (Book of Additions) many supporting documents, observations and illustrations that he deemed too lengthy to include in the chronicles.

Saint’s lives

The hagiographies were not intended to be biographies of the saints – rather they were accounts of ‘the actions and suffering of an individual in witnessing to their faith’ [15]. The hagiographies included lives of Edward the Confessor, Stephen Langton (the Archbishop of Canterbury forced on King John by the Pope) and, of course, the saints Alban and Amphibalus.

Several of them were were written in French, rather than the Latin Matthew employed for the chronicles, no doubt to make them more accessible to their intended readers. Matthew appears to have operated a kind of circulating library serving a book club of influential noblewomen. One hagiography, the Life of Edward the Confessor, was dedicated to Henry III’s wife, Queen Eleanor, and Matthew also left a note that his Life of St Alban should be sent to the Countess of Arundel and then to the Countess of Cornwall.

Clasby and Thomas suggest that, in addition to publicising the piety of saints recognised by the papacy, Matthew used the Lives to make subtle political points about the nature of Christian kingship and the need for the Church to be free of royal interference; he hoped that these would strike home through the medium of the noblewomen who read his work. [16]

Gesta Abbatum

The Gesta Abbatum is a history of the Abbey since its foundation under King Offa, and chronicling its development under each of the abbots. Although it may not be entirely accurate, particularly for the early years, there is no other record of monastic life that comes close to the level of detail in the Gesta, and it is an invaluable resource for studying the evolution of the Abbey.

Maps and itineraries

Matthew also produced a renowned map of Britain, and versions of a pilgrim’s itineraries from London to Rome and to Jerusalem in suggested daily stages. While the itineraries might plausibly have been used as an aid to travel, it seems more likely that they were intended to enable monks who were not permitted to leave the Abbey to undertake virtual pilgrimages. The British Library suggests that ‘each place on the journey probably had its allegorical counterpart within the cloisters and church of St Albans Abbey (rather like the Stations of the Cross in modern Catholic churches) and the monks would follow the route as a type of spiritual exercise’.[17]

Itinerary from London to Palestine, c1250, Matthew Paris, British Library (Public Domain)

Matthew’s latter years

Mission to Norway

Within ten years of his appointment to head the scriptorium, Matthew was entrusted with a quite different mission. No Benedictine monk was permitted to leave his monastery without permission from his abbot. But Matthew appears to have enjoyed greater latitude than most monks, occasionally making visits to London to attend the king at his court, and sometimes further afield.

One trip, in particular, stands out: Matthew’s journey, apparently at the behest of the pope and of the Norwegian king, to the Benedictine monastery of Nidarholm, on an island in Trondheim Fjord, to instruct the monks there in the Benedictine rule. Unfortunately, we only have Matthew’s account for most of the detail.

The story goes that, around 1245 or 1246, the abbot at Nidarholm squandered the wealth of the monastery, then deserted it, taking the monastery’s official seals with him. The archbishop of Trondheim made moves to take over the monastery, arguing that the monks were incapable of living a well-regulated communal life. Aggrieved at this, the remaining monks sent their prior to Rome to seek support. [18]

The former Nidarholm Benedictine Monastery, on the island of Munkholmen in Trondheim Fjord (Peter Bourton)

The prior arrived in Rome to find that the runaway abbot had been there before him, and had raised money from Cahorsin moneylenders using the Abbey’s stolen seals. The prior left without securing an audience from the pope, but on his return home, the monks heard that the abbot had died. They then elected a new abbot, who despatched the prior to England to seek advice from Matthew about how the monastery could free itself of its debts to the Cahorsin moneylenders. Matthew tells us that he was able to secure an arrangement whereby the abbey repaid only the capital sum, without interest, and the prior went home satisfied.

Meanwhile, the archbishop of Trondheim moved to take possession of the monastery and the island on which it stood. The monks appealed to the visiting papal legate, Cardinal William of Sabina, who had arrived to crown the new Norwegian king, Haakon IV. William advised the monks to ask the pope to appoint someone who could instruct them in the Benedictine rule. The abbot and prior went to Rome, and were asked by the pope to nominate an instructor.

Matthew was clearly very proud of his subsequent appointment. Though obliged to appear reluctant but submissive to the will of his superiors, he reported the abbot’s appeal to the pope thus:

My lord, we have learnt from experience that the monks of our order are nowhere throughout the entire world, we believe, so well-ordered as in England. Nor is there, we hear by report, so well-ordered a monastery in the kingdom of England as that of St Alban, protomartyr of the English. We therefore request a certain monk of that house called Matthew, of whose prudence and loyalty we have experience, as our reformer and instructor [19]

Weiler suggests that Matthew’s appointment may have resulted from his successful persuasion of the monastery’s creditors – Cahorsin moneylenders based in London – to come to terms with the Nidarholm prior [20].  As someone known to the English royal family, who had established a relationship of trust with the Norwegian monks, Matthew would have been a natural choice to provide instruction to them.

For a man of his advanced age (in his late forties or early fifties), Matthew’s mission to Norway entailed a long and arduous journey. Like the papal legate, he may well have travelled by way of the port of Bishop’s Lynn (later King’s Lynn), which handled wheat exports from England to Norway. If so, it is likely that he sailed in a cog, a round-bottomed clinker-built boat of a design that dominated the cargo trade in northern Europe from the 10th to 13th centuries.

At any rate, it appears that Matthew arrived in Bergen by boat in the summer of 1248, where he said that he was warmly welcomed by King Haakon. Frustratingly, Matthew tells us only that the mission was a success. No papers have yet been discovered in papal archives to substantiate the story, and it seems entirely possible that Matthew exaggerated his role as spiritual mentor to Nidarholm. Nevertheless, given that many people in St Albans Abbey would have seen his account, it is improbable that it was a complete fantasy.

Matthew prepares to wind down

By the time Matthew returned from Norway in late 1248 or early 1249, he must have been feeling his age.  At the end of his account for 1250, probably written in 1251, he declared that:

Here ends the chronicles of Brother Matthew Paris, monk of St Alban, which has committed to writing for the benefit of posterity, for the love of God and in honour of the blessed Alban, protomartyr of the English, lest the memory of present-day events be destroyed by age or oblivion [21].

But it proved difficult for Matthew to let go, and he resumed the chronicles shortly after, to the further benefit of posterity.

How did Matthew get away with it?

Critical and judgemental

While Matthew’s chronicles were certainly not impartial, they were also far from anodyne. He was forthright in his criticism of the actions of the king, the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, powerful Francophone nobles, and leading ecclesiastics (see box below). Matthew even condescended to his superiors, including Abbot William ‘whose negligences and faults … are nothing when compared to his benefactions’, and his successor Abbot John II, ‘legitimately born, from mediocre but praiseworthy and genteel stock, and progressing from virtue to virtue’ [22].

In the light of that, it is puzzling how Matthew managed to persuade highly-placed informants to talk to him, when his chronicle contains so much that would be offensive to powerful men. It might be thought that Matthew was able to maintain close control over who read the chronicles. However, it is clear that, during his lifetime, manuscripts of his chronicles were lent to other monasteries to make further copies.

 Matthew Paris, speaking frankly:       
 King John: ‘a greater tyrant than whom has never appeared among those born of women’ [p58 of Chronicles]
 King Henry III: ‘the king behaves in so tyrannical and arbitrary a manner that he does not even allow the herrings or other fish of the poor fisherman on the coast to be disposed of as they want …’[p133]
 Pope Innocent IV: ‘motivated by manifest avarice, [he issued a decree] stating that the belongings of persons dying intestate should be sold for the benefit of the pope’ [p92]
 Papal legates: ‘of whatever rank they were, and all papal messengers, invariably impoverished or in some way disturbed the kingdom they were entering’ [p108]
 Foreigners: ‘William de Bueles … was appointed seneschal of Gascony. As is usual with his countrymen – he was a Neustrian [from northern France] – he was great in talk but slow and weak in deeds …’ [p111]

At any rate, towards the end of his life, he set about removing some of the most scurrilous comments. There are numerous examples of particularly critical words and passages being scraped from parchment pages. However, fortunately for us, his efforts were not very thorough, and earlier manuscripts survive that retain the original wording.

The end of an era

In June 1259, Matthew died. The notice of his death was written by one of his scribes:‘It is to be known that thus far wrote the venerable man, brother Matthew Paris’. There followed a picture of Matthew on his deathbed, entitled:‘here died Matthew Paris’ [23].

Matthew Paris 02

Matthew Paris on his deathbed, Chronica Majora (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The monk who continued the chronicle for the next year or so noted that he was not worthy to latch Matthew’s shoes [24]. While this was rather harsh, he was certainly much less productive, to judge from the number of pages he produced in respect of 1260. With Matthew’s death, the glory days of chronicling at St Albans Abbey had drawn to a close.


My thanks to Gail Thomas, Sheila Green and Jon Mein for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article. Any errors are mine.

[1] Notwithstanding his name, which he sometimes styled as ‘Matthew de Paris’, it is clear from several approving references to the English as ‘we’ and ‘us’ that he considered himself to be English. It is possible that he studied in Paris.

[2] Vaughan, R., Matthew Paris (Cambridge, 1958) pp 1-2

[3] Cartwright, M., The Daily Life of Medieval Monks (13 December 2018) in Ancient History Encyclopedia, accessed 5 November 2020.

[4] Page, W. (ed), St Albans abbey: The abbey church building, in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, Pages 488-507. Originally published by Victoria County History (London, 1908).

[5] Ed. Vaughan R.,Chronicles of Matthew Paris – Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century (1984), p 38 [‘Chronicles’].

[6] Chronicles, pp 43.

[7] Serjeantson, D., and Crabtree, P., How wealthy? How pious? The status of Eynsham and St Albans abbeys between the 8th to the 12th centuries re-examined in the light of their food remains in Jervis, B. (ed.) The Middle Ages Revisited: Studies in the archaeology and history of Medieval southern England presented to Professor David A Hinton (Oxford, 2018).

[8] Chronicles, pp 45.

[9] Doyle,  K. and Lovett, P., How to make a medieval manuscript, in Medieval England and France 700 – 1200,  British Library website [accessed 29 November 2020].

[10] Ed Vaughan R., The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris – Observations of Thirteenth-Century Life, pp86-123 (Cambridge, 1984).

[11] Chronicles, p 7.

[12] Chronicles, pp 120-121.

[13] Clasby M and Thomas G, Matthew Paris – Monk and Chronicler of St Albans Abbey p 29 (St Albans, 2014) [‘Monk’]

[14] Cassidy R and Clasby M, Matthew Paris and Henry III’s elephant, Henry III Fine Rolls Project website (2012)

[15] Monk, p 24

[16] Monk, pp 24-25

[17] Matthew Paris’s itinerary maps from London to Palestine British Library website [accessed 26 March 2021]

[18] Chronicles, pp 158-161.

[19] Chronicles, pp 160.

[20] Weiler, B.K.U, Matthew Paris in Norway in Revue Benedictine, Vol. 122:1 (2012)

[21] Chronicles, pp 277.

[22] Chronicles, p 61

[23] p4, Carpenter, D., Chronology and truth: Matthew Paris and the Chronica majora, in Matthew Paris Essays ed J. Clark (2014) [‘Chronology’]

[24] Chronology, p6.